Monday, January 27, 2014

We don't need no leaders!

How many folks have heard this joke:

- A submarine that deploys with just enlisted does the job well, but comes back dirty
- A submarine that deploys with just chiefs comes back clean, but no mission done
- A submarine that deploys with just officers...well, we're still looking for it

I think I heard this about a thousand times as a JO onboard a submarine. The implication was that junior officers and chiefs only cared about the superficial things (like cleanliness) and that the real knowledge was at the enlisted level. You can find more such sentiment here: This sentiment has been amplified by books talking about "flattening the organization" and "leading horizontally."

The jokes imply chiefs or officers are morons and could be replaced, and yet how many of us have worked with great chiefs and great officers in our careers and were better for it? I think we have completely missed the point. Our system in the Navy depends on people executing their roles with the right amount of authority and responsibility.

Look at the basic division officer on a submarine. Can he or she approve leave? Special liberty? Do they sign EVALs when permitted by the 1610.10C?

What about your chiefs? Can they approve special liberty for a day? Can they let people go early? Do they get to make the watchbill? Are they given control of maintenance on the ship?

Too many times, the answer is "Yes, but only if the ENG/DH/XO/CO approve." That's the wrong answer. What I found on the submarine was that I and my chief could make all the plans in the world, but we were constantly trumped by the ENG over little things. We would get no guidance, we'd make a plan, then get trumped by ENG. After a while, we stopped trying. Sad, but true. What was the point? ENG held all the cards, and always had more authority than us. Half of the time, the CO trumped him, which made it even worse.

Just ask a JO how much fun routing a message is, and how many changes are made in the process, if you need a second example.

Flash forward to now. As a department head on shore duty, I've given my division chiefs tasks to execute. They bring the plan to me, and I'll be the first to admit I have the sudden urge to tweak it and make it better. But I've learned to stop myself. Most of the "tweaks" I would have done are simple changes and not worth the time. So I let them go, and we execute the plan as the chief wanted it. Same thing with admin: if all I'm doing is changing a word or two, it's not worth it, and I let it go.

That does a number of things for me. One, I keep my focus on the big picture: are we meeting the CO's requirements or not? If we are, then we go with it. It also gives my chiefs real authority. They, and their Sailors, know that unless something is very wrong, their chief ultimately becomes the person that approves the plan. What I've found is that it makes my chiefs more thorough in their planning, and especially in their admin. They won't bother (like I did back in the day) if they know that I'm going to tweak it no matter what, but they will work hard if they know it can get past my desk with no corrections.

I also push down a lot of authority and tasks. Chiefs run our ranking boards for the department. I do get the final say, but I've been really impressed by the product that comes out, and I don't really deviate from it. Chiefs own the special liberty of their Sailors for 24 hours. I have occasionally been bitten by this when someone isn't around, but overall the show of trust in my chiefs far outweighs the occasional surprise when I can't find someone I need.

I'm far from perfect though. I still occasionally reach directly to Sailors for tasks, bypassing my chiefs just like my ENG used to bypass me and my chief on the submarine. It's a bad habit, one that I have to come to grips with and correct at some point. While it is always my right to reach directly to any Sailor working for me, the reality is that most things aren't an emergency, and reaching to the chief first is a better plan in the long run. Thankfully, at least I realize it (with some very good feedback from my chiefs, of which I am thankful for every day) and am working to improve...I don't think my ENG ever did, nor did he ever realize the devastating effect it had on the authority of his JOs.

Bureaucracies formed in order to successfully manage large groups of people. Horizontal structures work great when a team is small, but they become unwieldy once you add more people. The trick to making bureaucracy work is to give authority to middle managers as much as possible, to the point that it pains you to do so. Too much focus is given on the commanding officer of a unit, like somehow he or she runs the whole show. We often forget about the men and women in the engineering spaces, or on the staff, that do the hard work day in and day out. If they never get a chance to execute real authority until they are COs or XOs (or division chiefs in the case of enlisted), then why are we surprised when COs and XOs get fired for abusing authority? Executing authority on a smaller level gives us practice so that when more comes our way, we're ready to handle it.

Setup your people for success and push down as much authority as you can...and then push down a bit more. You'll be pleasantly surprised by the results.